Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Supes cut truancy program


An 11-year-old truancy program given teeth and financial support by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office was cut yesterday when the Board of Supervisors voted against funding the program through next year.
The program, which was implemented countywide and partially paid for by individual school districts, was nearly dropped during the county’s June budget cycle, but received enough money to get it to this point.

The board voted against the program despite arguments from District Attorney Christie Stanley that the truancy program is a vital service that aids schools in showing students the serious consequences of skipping out on class.
Reaching such students at an early age, Stanley said, hopefully prevents future brushes with the law.
“That is where we can make our biggest impact,” she told the board. “When they are young and impressionable. So I’m asking you to hang with me.”
But the board did not stick with her. Instead it voted 3-2 against allotting the $166,000 that was needed to continue the program.
Stanley said two District Attorney-employed social workers would be laid off as a result, though they may be able to fill some other position in the department.
The vote represented a drastic turnaround for Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf, who said from the dais she supported full funding for the program during the county’s June budget hearings, but had a change of heart.
Wolf said the county’s financial crisis, which has prompted a mandatory two-week work furlough for the majority of county workers at the end of this December and was approved by the board yesterday, prompted her no vote.
During the furlough discussion, Wolf said she was concerned that county-operated children’s health clinics will be closed during the furlough. But she voted to approve it.
When it came time to discuss doling out additional funds for the truancy program, neither Wolf, First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal nor Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno said they could support it.
“How can we in good conscious look at our employees and continue to fund things,” said Carbajal, the chair of the board. “At this point it’s like adding insult to injury and I think it would send a terrible message to our employees.”
Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone, who throughout the past year has been vocally opposed to funding anything above and beyond necessity, including mental health services, supported the truancy program funds.
Firestone said he felt it a “good investment” to keep the truancy program afloat in order to keep kids out of trouble later on, since incarceration and other measures are far more expensive.
The District Attorney’s Office’s role in the truancy program primarily comes into effect for chronically truant students.
Fred Razo, school administrator for child welfare and attendance at the Santa Barbara County Education Office, said he fears truancy among students throughout the county could skyrocket without the District Attorney’s intervention.
“I hope I’m wrong,” Razo said. “But at least what I’ve seen over the years when you don’t have a truancy program is children fall behind, parents ask for help and when you can’t help them, that’s a difficult position to be in.
“It’s a very gloomy position we’re in right now.”
The truancy program consisted of five steps, the first being letters sent to parents from the school district and the District Attorney’s Office. The letters cited the potential legal consequences if children continued to rack up unexcused absences. Letters were sent when students amassed three absences.
The second step was an afterschool meeting focusing on parent-child accountability and legal responsibility. The third included a multi-agency meeting with parents and children to identify solutions to improving attendance, while the fourth was a meeting with the School Attendance Review Board, which placed the student on informal probation.
The fifth step included prosecution, court intervention and formal probation.
The program appears to have been successful.
Of the 10,252 first letters that were sent to parents of students who had three unexcused absences last year, only 2,708 of those went to the second step, while a mere 105 were dealt with legally.
In cases of chronic truancy, where students may have several hundred unexcused absences, Razo said the District Attorney’s Office stepped in and was able to help parents and students get counseling, drug or alcohol treatment, or whatever was needed to remedy the problem.
He said the District Attorney’s Office representatives also sat on the School Attendance Review Board.
Razo said it’s critical to show students early on how truancy impacts their future, explaining that it’s far more likely for truant youth to fail classes, fall behind in credits and ultimately not graduate.
He said statistics show cities without truancy programs have higher youth crime rates, especially during the afternoon when students should be in school.
Razo said he and other administrators throughout the county were counting on the funding to come through so they could spend the remainder of the school year preparing for further cuts at the county level this June.
Now Razo said he’d be on the phone with other district leaders today discussing what truancy programs will look like without the financial and persuasive strength of the District Attorney’s Office.
“Talk about preventative measures,” he said. “You want to get them early. I don’t know what we’re going to do with our program or what a new program will look like.”

No comments: